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Engagement for Policy Impact - A Welsh Perspective

Years ago, working as a UK Government lawyer, I often pondered the gap between the policy process - the realm of Ministers and their officials, often (not always well-enough!) informed by research - and the people and places affected by its legislative outputs.

Research impact requires engagement in policy process at the right time, in the right place. UPEN has opened a vital space in which to consider how this can happen more, and more systematically. In that space, however, I hope we can avoid over-concentration on a mere two-way dialogue between research and policy actors. I am glad that the 2019 report on a National Centre for Universities and Public Policy drew attention to the importance of linking policy engagement with public engagement and business engagement.

Policy process that engages effectively with the outside world has a better chance of producing policy that can be successfully implemented. Similarly, research that engages effectively with the outside world has a better chance of producing policy impact. As a former Morgan Academy colleague, at various times also an elected Member of the National Assembly for Wales, civil society campaigner and head of a Wales-wide NGO, put it: ‘Evidence makes the case; the story sells the case.’ Wide engagement – with whoever has a stake, in the places where they are - helps with both.

The Morgan Academy seeks to facilitate such dynamics in policy process. Named after the late Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister of Wales and Swansea University Chancellor, the Morgan Academy launched in 2017 to deal with pressing ‘wicked issues’ of public policy in Wales and beyond. The Morgan Academy has hosted symposia on health services and funding, post-Brexit implications for Wales, the impact of City Region Deals, tourism and identity. It has brought together researchers and stakeholders on specific policy developments including the National Development Framework for Wales and a Clean Air Act for Wales.

Places, people and politics matter. Devolution has produced different policy and political contexts. In Wales, the dominant policy orientation has been characterised as communitarian or universalist rather than (and in contrast to England) market or consumer oriented. The late Professor Michael Sullivan, founding Director of the Morgan Academy, posited the description ‘social democracy with a Welsh stripe’. It is discernible in policies and laws on health, education and social services, regional and spatial planning and the unique statutory frameworks on well-being of future generations and human rights. There are persistent problems of socio-economic inequality and social exclusion, with relatively high rates of child poverty. There are unique cultural factors including the Welsh language and internal regional differences. There are big questions about infrastructure for economic development, multiple regulatory regimes post-Brexit, multi-faceted inequalities, de-carbonisation, the opportunities and challenges of digital technologies, access to health, social care and education among others.

For the Welsh Government, there is a problem of capacity. Pre-devolution, Welsh Office civil servants mainly administered policy made in England. The transfer of executive and then legislative functions in steadily widening fields presented challenges in meeting the expectations of Welsh politicians and their electorate. In that context, it is not surprising that Welsh devolution has stimulated a growth in think-tanks. A report on Welsh think tanks by Victoria Winckler, Director of the Bevan Foundation, for the Welsh Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD), noted just one Welsh think tank which pre-dated devolution: the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Since devolution, seven have emerged, two of which, the Wales Centre for Public Policy and the Morgan Academy, are part of a university (Cardiff and Swansea respectively), the others free-standing in different types of structure including member organisation, company and charity. Only one – the Wales Centre for Public Policy – has substantial funding, which comes from the Welsh Government and ESRC, but all engage with research, policy and other interests in their work.

The size of Wales, the proximity of higher education institutions to government and public bodies, the prominence of universities in Welsh civil society and the pressing need for solutions to persistent and emergent challenges, create enhanced opportunities for research impact and, arguably, an enhanced obligation on the universities. Lateral connectivity and collaboration between think tanks and policy-oriented research is highly desirable in the contexts of place, people and politics. UPEN offers a framework in which we might find ways forward, acknowledging among others the particular and different circumstances of the devolved nations.

Professor Jane Williams is Interim Director of the Morgan Academy at Swansea University.


Posted 20/01/2020 16:59

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